"I feel sorry for [ Rhodes] and all these kids who come in with all this hype," Pitino says. "These kids have their tails kissed from the seventh grade on. I think you've got to earn stardom, and these kids never get a chance." At his postgame press conference, however, Pitino couldn't resist giving the following plug to freshman forward Antoine Walker, who was brilliant against Arkansas and earned tournament MVP honors: "He could be another Jamal Mashburn."
Pitino's equally loquacious counterpart, Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, also professes to disdain hype. It is Richardson's stated belief that because the Razorbacks looked so scarily dominant in last year's NCAA tournament, they get credit for possessing far more talent than they actually have. "We [looked] better than we really were," Richardson says.
That represents quite a bit of revisionist thinking for the Hogs' head man. After going on endlessly during the last Final Four about how he and his team weren't getting their due, it now seems Richardson wants us to believe that the Razor-backs got too much respect last year.
Although Arkansas took a 10-game winning streak into the Kentucky game, it has not performed up to expectations all season. The Hogs came perilously close to losing their tournament opener to Vanderbilt, squeaking by 73-72 last Friday. Their familiar fire returned against Kentucky, but the question marks linger.
The biggest one might be 6'11" sophomore center Darnell Robinson, who made an impact as a freshman but has struggled this season. By Saturday night Robinson had become so upset with his reduced playing time that he and his mother, Pamela Chaney, requested a meeting with Richardson. Robinson, a big-time recruit who holds the California prep career scoring record, told Richardson that he will consider transferring after the season. "I question my decision [to come to Arkansas] every day," Robinson said a few hours before the meeting. Richardson blames Robinson's struggles on his weight—"He came back from the summer weighing 290 pounds," says Richardson, "and he did an excellent job of getting down to 255." Apparently yielding to the pressure, however, Richardson inserted Robinson into the starting lineup against Kentucky, and Robinson responded with his best game of the season, scoring 14 points and grabbing nine boards.
It wasn't enough, and that has to put a dent in the immense confidence of the Arkansas players, who do not buy their coach's take on the team's talent level. "Our mentality is that no team deserves to be on the court with us," Williamson says. After disposing of Alabama on Saturday, Williamson transferred those thoughts to paper, borrowing a reporter's notebook to pen a letter to SI: "Dear Editor, I'm really mad at the way you've erased Arkansas out of your mind....Get ready to start writing more articles, because you'll be hearing a lot more from Arkansas in the coming weeks. Sincerely, Corliss Williamson."
That may be—as long as the Hogs aren't drowned out by the constant cackling of Pitino. If you saw the man play himself in the movie Blue Chips—"Great call, you're the best. That's why you're a good official," he says to one ref in the film—you surely were entertained, but he is a better act in real life. He regularly gives over-the-top performances, delivering lines with the theatrical aplomb of Alec Baldwin and never appearing boorish or insincere. So what if he never sits, if his chair is as useless to him as a comb is to Sinead O'Connor? Right now Pitino is sitting on something special, and unless you're one of the ones being yelled at. it's a pleasure to watch him work.